Family  /  Book Review

The Trouble with Ancestry

Two family histories by Americans connected to Europe’s twentieth century through their fascist grandfathers seek to occupy the void between history and memory.

Bilger and Kinstler are Americans connected to Europe’s terrible twentieth century by their fascist grandfathers. Bilger grew up in Oklahoma, the son of German parents who had immigrated to the US in 1962. His mother’s father, Karl Gönner, was, from 1940 until 1944, the school headmaster and, from March 1942, Nazi Party chief of the occupied village of Bartenheim, in Alsace, a region of France long claimed by Germany. Kinstler’s parents emigrated from what was then Soviet Latvia in 1988. Her grandfather Boris Karlovics Kinstler had a much more lurid career. He was a member of the Arājs Kommando, a corps of Latvian volunteers under Nazi control who massacred much of the country’s Jewish population, mostly in the Riga ghetto and in nearby forests, where around 25,000 people were executed by firing squads over the course of a few weeks in late 1941.

Both grandfathers were educated men. Gönner was a graduate of a teacher training college near Karlsruhe, Germany. Kinstler’s induction into far-right politics came through the ultranationalist Lettonia student brotherhood at the University of Latvia, in which he met Viktors Arājs, soon to become the most enthusiastically murderous of Germany’s local collaborators. Gönner, though briefly imprisoned in France as a war criminal, survived long enough for Bilger to be able to remember him: “Tall and gaunt, with a shock of peppery blond hair, he had a glass eye that would swivel unnervingly out of line as he spoke.” Boris Kinstler, on the other hand, died, perhaps by suicide, in 1949, a long time before his granddaughter’s birth. These differences give the books contrasting textures, Bilger’s being much more personal in tone, Kinstler’s more explicitly concerned with how the Holocaust is remembered and forgotten in Latvia today.

At the core of Bilger’s quest is a strange encounter in the spring of 1983. His parents were driving across northern France on their way to visit relatives in Germany when his mother suddenly saw, “like a jump cut in an old film,” a road sign for Bartenheim, the village where her father had been the Nazi Ortsgruppenleiter, or local party boss. She asked her husband to turn off toward the village and, while he stayed in the car, she walked around the schoolhouse she had last seen as a child, forty years before, the place where Gönner had worked conscientiously to turn his French-speaking Alsatian pupils into good Germans. Across the courtyard she spotted an old man. She asked him if he remembered her father. “Well, of course!” he replied. “I saved his life, didn’t I?”